My Favourite Musical Songs: #13
13. It’s a Fine Life from Oliver (Version included from the 1968 film performed by Shani Wallis and Company…Also I am not using the exclamation mark that is suppose to come after Oliver cause I think it is stupid.)
There is a long tradition in musicals whereby we are invited to celebrate in the moral victory that is being poor. While the characters claim to be stressed about having no money for their rent, having a hard knock life, wishing they had a room somewhere far away from the cold night air or literally singing about much better life would be if they were a rich man they often seem to be having a lot more fun than the characters with financial stability. When you watch these shows you are encouraged to like them at least in part because they take their bad lot with a smile and a song. In a lot of these stories the characters are rewarded for their happy-go-lucky attitude with a change in circumstances without having to sacrifice their tremendous gift for the kind of uncensored straight talking that only comes from attending the University of Life.
But Nancy? Nancy does not get rewarded for her gutsy zeal in the finale of ‘Oliver.’ Or indeed, at any point in ‘Oliver.’ In another show, lines like ‘When you’ve got someone to love…you forget your cares and strife’ would possibly cause me to role my eyes in irritation. But the context of this cheery song and the surprisingly subtle (for a musical) air of desperation Nancy has throughout brings depth to what would otherwise be a ‘Chim-Chim-Cher-ee’ sort of tune. What I am trying to say is: I find it very easy to like Nancy because she really seems to want to believe that her life is good enough…even when it clearly isn’t. And it is not about to get any better either.
The score of ‘Oliver’ is fantastic with plenty of corking numbers and is one of the few shows where I genuinely prefer the movie version to any stage adaptation I have seen. While the decision to award it Best Picture remains one of the most grumpily contested choices The Academy ever made, I try and defend it by pointing out it is the definitive version of an oft told/produced story that could only have been improved upon if they had recast the title character. Seriously. Mark Lester couldn’t sing or act. What was the point of him??? However the rest of the cast are perfect and more than make up for him. All the musicals numbers are divinely staged, shot and performed and it is just so gosh darn fantastic. So I suppose its only crime is not being ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ neither of which were actually nominated for Best Picture in spite of their eligibility. But that is hardly the fault of ‘Oliver.’ Come on guys. The kid went through enough.
Anyway, I love pretty much all the songs: ‘Boy for Sale’ in a superb vocal, ‘Who Will Buy?’ is one of the most stunning ensemble production numbers on film, Ron Moody is terrific in ‘Reviewing the Situation’ and fully earned his Oscar nomination but ‘It’s a Fine Life’ won the day for me as it is part the joyous roar of the working class and part a tragic cry for the recognition of sacrifice. Shani Wallis’s career defining Nancy is undeniably the star of this one, so devoted to her admittedly hunky man and so proud of her roots that she cannot really see the horrible irony of singing cheerfully of how it is ok to go without things and how you might get a black eye but you are alright until he gets the other one. Or does she? There is a knowingness to this character, elevating her above the usual superficially drawn musical characters.
There is a reason Wallis will always be Nancy: Her interpretation is phenomenally layered and genuinely heartbreaking. Not to mention it is a great intro song, is catchy as hell, and Nancy is one the few female leads who sings in an alto range which makes her extra special. If she opened her mouth and sang like a choir girl it might not be so convincing.
The little details make it: The hole in the arm pit of her red dress, her gleeful attempts to get Bill’s attention (I love the way Oliver Reed plays this scene like he is just waiting for her to shut the fuck up), the look on her face when she realises he is going without a word and the joy when she then clocks that he is waiting for her. Foolish devotion to an angry criminal has never been more charming. Nancy may not get her happy ending but she will always be one of musical theatre’s best roles and in a way that is the legacy we all want…Right?
I think I’d better think it out again…
OTHER NOTABLE VERSIONS: Lord knows how many versions I have tried to sift through. It would be easier to say what actress hasn’t had a bash at this one. Some of the Nancy Girls include Ruthie Henshall, Sonia Swaby, Kerry Ellis, the ‘I’d Do Anything’ girls…And more am dram with Dick Van Dyke accents than you can shake a pathetically performed stick at. Sometimes the original is just the best.
BEST BIT: As emotional as ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ is, I find this song moves me just as much thanks to the little section beginning at 3:42 when she has a moment of quiet contemplation where she notes that this is as good as it gets for someone like her. It always brings a lump to my throat. She is so wonderful. And like so many women before and since, doesn’t she deserve more?